D.N. JHA: "Historians who come in proximity to power change their secular lines, too."
DWIJENDRA NARAYAN JHA, an eminent historian, has campaigned extensively against the communalisation of history. His book Myth of the Holy Cow,wherein he dispelled popular misconceptions that Muslims introduced beef-eating in India, created ripples in political circles. An ardent critic of the Hindu nationalist ideology, Jha, along with three other historians, sought to prove in a report, “Ramjanmabhoomi–Babri Masjid: A Historians’ Report to the Nation”, that there was no evidence of the existence of a Ram temple under the Babri mosque and that the controversy was created by the Sangh Parivar for political gains. In an interview to Frontline, he talks about his findings in Ayodhya and the role of professional historians in countering hate politics for a better nation-building process. Excerpts:
With the Liberhan Commission’s report indicting several top and second-rung leaders of the Sangh Parivar, what will be the status of the original Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute?
Well, in my view, this has no bearing on the original dispute. I have seen the ATR [Action Taken Report] and I didn’t find anything there that has any implication for what will happen to the dispute. The Liberhan report doesn’t talk about the original dispute. That matter is still pending in court. I think there should be a day-to-day trial, and the judiciary should expedite the whole matter now that the report is out. Those who have been named should be brought to court; but my own feeling is that the Government of India does not seem enthusiastic about taking action against any of those who are named in the list of 68 people.Justice M.S. Liberhan has also said that the Muslim organisations failed to protect the interests of the people they claimed to represent. How valid is this opinion?
That would be a very remote conclusion one can draw. You see fundamentalism of all sorts. Maybe some Muslim organisations have heightened the consciousness of the community to protect the monument, but that’s about all. But if you say that these organisations gave implicit instigation to convert people to fundamentalism, I don’t think so.Could you briefly tell us about the findings of the independent report prepared by M. Athar Ali, Suraj Bhan, R.S. Sharma and you?
The Babri Masjid was built by Mir Baqi, a military officer in the kingdom of the Mughal ruler Babur, in 1528-29. The main contention of the Sangh Parivar is that the mosque was built by demolishing a Ram temple and that it was the birthplace of Rama. But it was only in 1948-49 that you see a miraculous appearance of idols under Gobind Ballabh Pant’s chief ministership [of the United Provinces] and Nehru’s prime ministership. Between then and the mid-1970s, one does not hear of this controversy at all. It was only after the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] came into being that it started talking about Kashi, Mathura and Ayodhya as pilgrimage centres. Gradually in 1986, you see the opening of the locks [of the masjid] and, subsequently, the shilanyaas.
All these developments coincided with the emergence of the VHP as a strong force and other organisations such as the Bajrang Dal and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] in the Hindutva camp. They made political use of it.
I think the dispute is really an artefact created by the Hindutva camp for fundamentalist purposes that culminated in the demolition of the mosque in 1992. Before 1992, slogans like “Mandir wohin banayenge”, and “this is Ram’s janmabhoomi [birthplace]” rent the air in North India. But if you look at the historical texts and evidence, Ram Janmabhoomi does not find prominence.
For instance, a very important text, Skanda Purana, speaks of Ayodhya mahatma [greatness]. Only 100 verses are devoted to the ascent of Rama to heaven from a place called Swargadwar at the confluence of the river Ghaggar and the river Saryu. It exists even now. But only 10 verses are devoted to his birth. This shows that his birthplace was not important but what was important was the place from where he went to heaven. Only Swargadwar was a tirtha (centre of pilgrimage). In the 11th century text Krtyakalpataru by Bhatta Lakshmi Dhar, the list of pilgrimages is detailed extensively. It is a very long list. The author was a minister in the Gahrwal kingdom, which ruled even Ayodhya at that time. He does not mention Ayodhya as a centre for pilgrimage in “Tirthavivechan Kanda” [a section devoted to pilgrimage centres in the book].
Now, take, for instance, Tulsidas, the author of Ramacharitamanas. He writes about Rama and Ayodhya but never says that a Rama temple was demolished. I don’t understand why these people made so much of hullabaloo about the temple.
Other types of archaeological evidence also show that in the whole of North India, there were no temples exclusively devoted to Rama until the late 17th-early 18th century. In South India, you find them since the Chola period (10th-12th century) but not in North India. Two or three temples of Rama belonging to the 12th century are found in Madhya Pradesh but not in Uttar Pradesh, not in Bihar, not even in Orissa. Ram temples became common in North India only in the 17th century.
The famous temple devoted to Sita at Janakpur in Nepal Tarai came up only in the late 18th-early 19th century. I don’t think there is enough historical evidence about the temple. In fact Ayodhya was important for other religions, such as Jainism and Buddhism. The Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zhang [who toured the subcontinent during the Gupta period, around A.D. 630] recorded that there were around 100 Buddhist monasteries and only 10 abodes of devas [brahmanical gods]. Vishnu Smriti also lists 52 pilgrim centres very early in 3rd-4th century A.D. but it does not name Ayodhya. What I am trying to say, even for argument’s sake, is that if there was a temple so important at Ayodhya, it should have existed in the literary and archaeological evidence before 1528 when the mosque was built.
At least, it should have existed in the 11th-12th century.Before the demolition of the masjid, Professor B.B. Lal of the Archaeological Survey of India had claimed to have found ‘evidence of pillar bases’ of a mandir beneath the Babri Masjid. Indologist Koenraad Elst also writes about the [existence of a] temple. Some have said that the mosque was called Masjid-e-janmasthaan. What is, then, the basis of such claims?
B.B. Lal in his first report on Ayodhya did not mention any temple. He says that the upper-most layers are represented by Kankar [stone] and other things. In 1985-86 he retired from the ASI and began to change his tune. He began to say that the pillars of the mosque might indicate a pre-existing temple. But that was all tongue-in-cheek. Then, subsequently, in a paper he presented [at a seminar] in Patna he said that he had not found any evidence of a Rama temple at Ayodhya and urged Mother Earth to forgive him for this. Later on, at another seminar in Vijaywada, he said that the only way to solve the problem was to excavate the area, which meant demolishing the mosque. He and his camp started saying that something should be done to demolish the mosque. There was already the PWD’s [Public Works Department] levelling work and kar seva going on there.
Archaeology is a scientific activity and cannot be done like this. The pillars are, in fact, 1.70 metres in height and the experts who went with us to visit the site said that these pillars could not be load-bearing pillars. The mosque had three big domes and the height of the 14 pillars did not suggest that they were part of a temple. What may have happened is that they could have been brought from outside for decorative purposes. What is important is that the area does not have that kind of pillar stone. The art historians whom we consulted said that these pillars could be from Bengal and must have been brought by the Palas who ruled the area.
Even the word janmasthaan does not exist in any of the texts. Skanda Purana is an amorphous text and its composition stretches over centuries, from the 14th century to the 18th century. It is only in the last stage [around the 18th century] that janmasthaan is mentioned in passing. So, the whole idea becomes important only in the 19th century. There were conflicts, of course, but there is no evidence to support them. It is important to see that in the earlier period, we do not get any sculptures from Ayodhya. There are two or three catalogues in museums in Uttar Pradesh. One in Lucknow, one in Allahabad and one in Faizabad, which is Ayodhya. None of the catalogues mentions Rama.The VHP movement around the Ram temple started only in the 1970s after the Paramhans vs Wakf Board case. How did Ayodhya become a centre of contention? Does colonial knowledge formation play a part in the controversy a s some historians try to suggest?
The British might have had something to do with this. But in Ayodhya, there were around 6,000 temples in the 19th and the early 20th century. It is likely that there were property disputes like the Wakf Board and the Paramhans court case. Such court cases might be a legacy of the past. Even if the Britishers played a role, how does it matter? It could have been their method of governance, instigating the existing conflicts. The point is that there was no temple.The VHP and leaders like Pravin Togadia have given an estimate of around 30,000 temple sites where mosques came up in India. Temple politics such as the Ayodhya case has had a calamitous impact on national contemporary politics, leading to killings and riots in the past two decades. The American historian Richard M. Eaton’s “Essays on Islam and Indian History” is probably the only book that studies the temple desecration issue and pegs the number of desecrated temples at 80 between 1192 and 1760 as a consequence of political compulsion and not because of religious righteousness. As a historian, do you see the need for more such studies to counter the growing fascist influence on history writing?
Yes, of course. This will ultimately help to unite different religious communities and help in nation building. How do people like Togadia come up with such a figure? If historians take up such studies it will reduce the much-hyped hostilities. Togadia and others speak of Muslim hostility towards Hindus. But what happened in Karnataka? Lingayats occupied Jain temples. They put their tilak [a Hindu symbol] on Jain statues, appropriated other religious places of worship. In fact, Jains were so much oppressed by the Lingayats that they had to seek protection from the Vijaynagara rulers. In Tamil Nadu, 8,000 Jains were impaled at a Madurai court, as mentioned in a historical text. It is not only Muslims who did it. This has been done by all religions. Similar things happened in Europe also. Churches were damaged by Muslims. Sects within Christianity fought against each other. We always say that Hinduism is the most tolerant. If there is anything like the Hindu, there is a streak of intolerance in all historical texts. Vaishnavas and Saivites have fought all the time.As was understood in Ayodhya and now at many other places in India, a disputed structure has many meanings and emotions attached to it – religious, territorial, property, class and caste. In your view what is a disputed structure and what are its political implications?
The common people are not bothered about these disputes. There is a class understanding to it. When we went to Ayodhya, we didn’t find any Muslim or Hindu living there who was interested in the controversy. Kar sevaks were mobilised from outside and used for political purposes. What I am saying is that if there is a disputed structure anywhere and the local people are not bothered, the state should see to it that it does not flare up. Only those who belong to the elite and who are likely to gain something out of the conflict are interested. How does the state function? They are talking of Rama now. In Delhi itself, there are thousands of Hanuman temples that have come up on illegally occupied government land and the state is not playing any role in stopping it.
Our Constitution identifies religion while defining secularism but it doesn’t say that a state official can identify himself as belonging to one religion while doing his duty. When the first President of India, Rajendra Prasad, went to take a dip in the Ganga at Prayag [Allahabad], there was a controversy. People objected to his performing the religious ritual with the presidential paraphernalia. But today, no one objects to such things when the Prime Minister goes to a gurdwara. People are against giving any subsidy for Hajj pilgrimage. But no one questions the huge amount of state money spent at the Vaishno Devi temple [Katara, Jammu and Kashmir] or for the Amarnath Yatra and the Kumbh Mela.Ayodhya is a clear case of politics that relied heavily on the study of historical ‘facts’. What is a historical fact and how should the state look at it in the methods of governance? Even the state is following different secular trajectories. Liberhan has quoted Amartya Sen while pushing the values of secularism, in a way keeping in line with the ‘facts’ that have come out of your school of history. In 2003, the same judicial machinery within a nation state implicitly validated the facts of the school of history represented by the likes of B.B. Lal when the Allahabad High Court (Lucknow Bench) ordered a probe to find out about the existence of the temple. How, as a professional historian who is in a position to critique both the state and the communal forces, do you locate yourself in society and how do historians participate in these complexities through history writing, given the complex nature of historical interpretations?
I think historians and social scientists have to come out very clearly and say that there cannot be a state religion, and a nation state cannot be built on the basis of religion. The state should rely on historians and not on what the courts say.
The Allahabad High Court order of excavation was not in good taste because the court doesn’t have any academic credentials. Even the ASI’s findings are awful. It takes help from Tojo Vikas International, which has no archaeological expertise. It uses the GPR [Ground Penetration Radar], which has nothing to do with archaeology.
Their conclusions are that there are certain anomalies and disturbances under the ground. What does that mean? It is a site 2,000 years old and there can be anomalies for anything like earthquakes or conflicts between different groups or hundreds of reasons.
Archaeological evidence becomes important in their context of physical relationship to the surroundings in a certain material culture.
In order to resolve the dispute over fact, the best thing is to have B.B. Lal and other historians sit in front of the court and debate. The court could then decide on what convinces it on the basis of rationality. That is one of the ways.
There was a system of vaad-vivaad (debate) and shaastrath [interpretation of shastras] in ancient times. The court should take into account the patron-client relationship, like the one B.B. Lal has with the BJP. The Liberhan Commission has recommended setting up a national commission to look into the masjid-mandir dispute, but the Government of India refused to have that, citing the existence of the ASI. My point is: Where was the ASI when the mosque was demolished? I participated in the series of deliberations that took place between the Babri Masjid group and the VHP group, and I always found that the ASI’s stand was equivocal. We were given access to antiquities, but the ASI didn’t give us the site notebook of Trench 4, which was the crucial evidence for judging whether there was anything underground.
The site notebook is the only record of day-to-day excavation detail as after excavation the ground is filled with earth. There should be an autonomous national commission constituted by historians and archaeologists both from India and outside.
The ASI should be taken away from the Culture Ministry and made a part of the national commission, and, perhaps, statutory if it is required. The ASI should be made accountable to the commission.There seems to be a gap between history in classrooms and popular historical notions, as is clearly reflected in the Ram Janmabhoomi case. Similarly, the state tries to create its own history as part of nation building and the political parties teach another kind of history for indoctrination. How do you assess the role of a professional historian in engaging with popular history to reshape historical understanding among the masses? Do you see any space in between from where history writing is possible in order to create a harmonious society instead of a divisive one?
I think, in this regard, historians are at fault to a certain extent. If professional historians write for the people that will ultimately have some impact.
In Gujarat, what happened in 2002 can be attributed to the kind of history that was being taught in the State for the past 40 years. In North India, schools like Sishu Mandir and Vidya Bharati are teaching non-history in the name of history.
Ninety per cent of professional historians are the most secular people in the country, but the state has to play a greater role in unifying the education system. Anything that is not borne out by rationality and evidence should be stopped altogether by the state.
The problem, however, is that education is both a Central and a State subject. The NCERT brings out model textbooks, but the States do not adopt them. They make their own changes. Secularisation of education and promotion of scientific temper should be a state effort. Otherwise, whatever historians write, it won’t be of any help. I don’t see any indication of this in the ATR. The state makes its own compromises according to political pressure, as was seen in the Ram Setu case recently.
Historians who come in proximity to power change their secular lines, too. There should be an atmosphere of dialogue in the academic community. Intellectuals should come out in the open and say that there was no Ram temple in Ayodhya, which most of them believe. They should make their assumptions clear to the reader and then be as objective as possible in writing history. Only then the reader will judge the writer and historical facts better.
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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